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Plans are finalized

Sox’ focus is on Game No. 162

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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BALTIMORE - One hundred and sixty two games.

And then what?

Who knows if the Red Sox will be the wild-card team in the American League playoffs?

If the Rays and the Sox win tonight, there will be a 163d game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., tomorrow afternoon.

Everything that’s happened until now doesn’t matter. Even last night’s 8-7 win over the Orioles, which enabled the Sox to stay tied with the Rays.

“It’s all about repeating this tomorrow,’’ said Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. “We won tonight and they won so we’re back even. Now it’s the same thing I’ve been saying, ‘Survive or die,’ and we’re in that position now more than ever.’’

Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledged he was a nervous wreck as the Sox staved off a late-inning rally by the Orioles.

“I think it’s great for baseball, not for my stomach,’’ Francona said. “I can’t remember being that nervous in a long time.’’

Game No. 162 is all about Jon Lester.

The Sox lefty has owned the Orioles - 14-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 17 starts. If he can continue that, the Sox then will have to figure out who pitches next for them, probably John Lackey or Tim Wakefield.

The trend that can’t continue is Lester’s ineffectiveness of late. In his last four starts he’s 1-3 with a 6.97 ERA. He will be pitching on three days’ rest but he only threw 55 pitches in his last start, in which he lasted 2 2/3 innings against the Yankees.

If he does that again, there’s a chance the Sox won’t be in the playoffs.

Lester has been seen talking to team psychologist Bob Tewksbury the past couple of days and perhaps he’s trying to get his head straight in time for a huge game.

The Rays will go with David Price against the Yankees.

So in the final regular-season game, two of the best lefties in the game - Lester and Price - will battle the Orioles and Yankees, respectively.

The Rays have an advantage in that they’re playing at home. But while the Rays are playing the AL East champions, the Sox are playing the division’s last-place team.

The Sox have had their hands full against Buck Showalter’s nine while the Rays have been overachieving and getting big hits at the right time in making this one of the more interesting finishes in recent times.

Game 162 is the story of the Little Team that Could (Rays) against the Big Team That Can’t (Red Sox).

Francona’s funky lineup worked last night with rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway hitting sixth and belting two home runs. But Jed Lowrie went 0 for 5 with two strikeouts from the cleanup spot, and that’s expected to change tonight.

Lavarnway wasn’t going to catch in a game as long as Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek were OK.

When both backstops couldn’t overcome their injuries - Saltalamacchia with a collarbone issue and Varitek with a sore knee - Francona had no choice but to go with the young slugger, who has been working diligently with catching coach Gary Tuck since his early September recall.

Now what does Francona do?

After he hit the two homers and knocked in the four runs, threw out a runner at third, and made a tough play pouncing on a dribbler in the ninth, how can you sit your energizer?

The guess is that Francona will go with Saltalamacchia if he’s healthy, given that he normally catches Lester. But we could also hear, “Salty is still hurting and Tek is battered, so we had to go with Lavarnway one more time.’’

The way Lavarnway hit last night and with his power potential in a park that’s suited for his stroke, it’s tempting to give him another shot.

Lavarnway didn’t sound like he knew what his status was after the game.

He was asked about catching Lester and said, “I would view it as an honor to catch Jon if I was given the chance to do so. But Jarrod is our starting catcher and I’m sure he would go if he’s OK. If he’s not, then I’ll go out and do my best for this team.’’

Lavarnway has fresh legs and a fresh bat. It’s a big moment, and as a manager you usually want to go with the players who got you to the dance. But how do you sit the player who played a large role in making the victory possible?

If you have to hurt some feelings, then you do it.

Game 162 also will be about the bullpen.

If Lester has to be relieved, you can bet that no matter how tired he may be that Alfredo Aceves will be the first man out of the bullpen.

Aceves was lights-out again last night, allowing one run in 3 2/3 innings, and when asked if he could be available tonight he said, “If I wake up tomorrow, like I said, I’ll pitch again.’’

Make sure he gets a wake-up call.

Game 162 will also be about pride.

No matter how poorly the Sox have played in September and no matter how ugly they’ve looked, if they win tonight and Tampa Bay loses then all is forgotten.

Skip the champagne celebration, though, because they should just be thankful they got that far given how terribly they’ve played.

And so the currently underachieving big payroll team gets one last shot. Give the Sox credit, they came up big in a must-win game.

Can they give the best performance of the season in Game 162?

“We’d better,’’ Ortiz said. “Or we’re going home.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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